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Loving to despise the NBER: America’s new pastime

Tucker Slosburg

Tucker Slosburg

Help me understand the need to make fun of those at the National Bureau of Economic Research. You remember them – our good friends, the arbiters of recessions, depressions and inceptions.

They declared the recession ended last June. That’s great news. Yet everyone seems to bemoan the lack of turnaround that somehow things have not magically transformed into a better world.

 In the last week, I’ve heard too many quips to the effect of “the recession is over, can’t you tell?” Then there are the media reports that put trite articles like “Is the recession over for you.” These aren’t specific headlines or quotations, but they convey the dominant sentiment.

I suspect our motives stem from a self-righteousness and vindictive desire to undermine the elites out East: “They say it’s over, but what do those economists know anyway. They’re cloistered in their ivory tower away from the world.”

In short, we like the ability to tell a bunch of highly trained elite PhD’s that we know better. Or maybe it’s a way of using humor to soften a struggle? Taking a Hobbsian view of human nature, I cast my lot on the former, but I could be wrong.

I’m then left with the question, to what end? The cheesy jokes, the trite headline, the annoying co-worker laughing as he makes the punchline: “Where does it all go?” Nowhere. It solves nothing. And even that vindictive feeling of knowing might know better than some professor is not a long-lived satisfaction. It’s like winning an argument with a 5-year-old. Mazol Tov for you. In the end, things are still tough, and we’ve got some serious times to slog through.

Yet, what surprises me most about these sorts of comments is that they come from smart people. People – I would think – understand that the terms recession and depression are historical terms that can only be defined post-event. Sure we still feel the effects, and I suspect we will for awhile. Considering that the NBER decided on June 2009 because of the beginning of expansion, but not the beginning of increased employment. That changed six months later.

I’m not an economist, I’m not a politician, I’m not even fully employed – thanks to the recession – but I do know enough to know that there is not going to be a quick turnaround. Just look at spring of 2009, when the recession ended. Investors drove the market up so fast. It was if people thought they could invest their way out of a recession. What happened? The markets came tumbling back down over this summer. For the first time in my life I wondered what the difference between investing our way out and spending our way out was. But then, look at how recent rally in the stock market.

Sure there are other factors, debt in Europe, debt in the USA, the uncertain effects of quantitative easing (round 2), general frustrations, but we always like to blame other things. I like to blame the recession for my unemployment.

Apparently I’ve just abandoned my Hobbsian views for something more Panglossian. Perhaps that’s what we all need – a little less Hobbes and a little more Pangloss. Never mind that Voltaire cast him in a negative light; it’s still more fun to be optimistic. So leave those folks at the NBER alone. They don’t mean any harm. Bottom line: we’ll recover, but going to do it slowly. It will be painful. It is painful. Even being underemployed, I’m lucky because I don’t have a mortgage or dependents. But I am certainly frustrated.

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